William A. Hilliard
Born: May 28, 1927, Chicago IL
The Oregonian, Portland, 1952-1994
As a child, Hilliard dreamed of becoming a journalist. That was a difficult dream for a young man growing up in the 1930s — a time when society dictated that African Americans work as maids, waiters or porters.
At the age of 11, he was denied a paper route at The Oregonian in Portland because the newspaper's managers thought that white readers wouldn't want their paper to be delivered by a person of color. Later, as a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, a professor told him that African Americans couldn't be journalists on mainstream newspapers. A lesser man might have allowed such societal prejudices to quell his dreams. Hilliard, on the other hand, chose to pursue his dreams with quiet but steadfast purpose.
After transferring to Pacific University in Forest Grove, where he earned a degree in journalism, Hilliard worked as a redcap at Union Station in Portland and started the Portland Challenger, a weekly newspaper that covered Portland's black community. A few months later, The Oregonian hired him to be a copy boy and then made him a part-time clerk in the sports department. Eventually, he was made a full-time sports reporter. From there, he was transferred to the paper's city desk to be a religion and general assignment reporter. In 1965, he was offered the chance to leave reporting and become an assistant city editor at The Oregonian. Six years later he was named city editor, and 11 years after that he became executive editor. Four years later he became editor, with full control over the newspaper's news and editorial departments.
Under Hilliard's leadership, The Oregonian started suburban zoned coverage, hired columnists, and featured more in-depth and investigative reporting. Circulation grew. Hilliard also concentrated on opening employment at the paper to a wider range of people. Under his leadership, minority employment at the paper increased 168 percent.
On his editorial watch, the newspaper began covering stories and issues that were of interest and concern to minorities. The Oregonian was the second paper on the West Coast to cover the national meetings of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
While at The Oregonian, Hilliard traveled across the country to speak to college students and professional groups about the importance of diversity. He was an advocate of diversity before it became a goal of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Hilliard also devoted much of his time and that of Oregonian staffers to Oregon's Open Meetings law. He encouraged staffers to testify on behalf of the law and used the newspaper's resources to defend the law.
In 1993, Hilliard was named president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Again, he was the first African American to hold that post, and he delivered the following words during the organization's annual meeting:
"The Oregonian did not fire a white male reporter to make room for me, and I was not promoted at the expense of more competent or deserving colleagues. Nobody lost because I succeeded. On the contrary, I want to believe that, over the years, scores of young people of color have looked at me and said, 'It can happen.'"
Hilliard's ASNE successor, Gregory E. Favre, described Hilliard as "a leader who has served with grace and passion, with energy and vision. He has served with a sense of sharing and a sense of caring. ... Throughout his career, Bill has helped plant the seeds that have blossomed in our newsrooms, seeds of all colors, both genders, all ages, all desires, a broad range of human experiences. Seeds of diversity."
Bill Hilliard refused to be discouraged by the racial barriers he faced as an aspiring journalist. Instead, through talent and perseverence, he rose through the ranks of The Oregonian to serve as editor during the paper's greatest growth, both financially and journalistically.